Stayin' Kinda Alive

Scott Savin, the horses, and the "crowd"
Colby Katz

Thoroughbred racing is an old man's game. The bettors who stand in the shade at the front of Gulfstream Park's clubhouse or saunter through the paddock, looking for telltale signs in the horses that are being saddled for the next race, are mostly in their 60s and 70s. They're in shorts and golf caps or pastel slacks and polo shirts -- the wardrobe of the honorably retired. Some of them proudly display emblems from encounters with Lady Luck: a T-shirt from Churchill Downs or a cap with "Aqueduct" embroidered across the front. They study The Racing Form like scholars delving into the Torah, or they cluster in small groups, comparing notes on the next race with wry, savvy commentary.

These are the Hallandale Beach track's core customers. A tough crowd, maybe, but they're loyal to racing. There's something about sunshine and the thunder of galloping hooves that keeps the old guys coming back. "I'm losing my shirt, but I love it," one veteran said the other day after watching his horse trail the field in a run-of-the-mill race. For Gulfstream, that translates into gold. According to the track's market research, each of the regulars bets about $200 on every visit.

The only problem is: They're dying out. "Every year, we lose between 1.5 and 3 percent of our core customer base through death and disability," Gulfstream President Scott Savin says. "It's affecting every track in America."

No new customers -- and, not too far down the road, no track. The alarming attrition in attendance at one of the nation's premier thoroughbred venues, which employs more than 500 people, has continued this year, raising the specter of a slow, Shaker-like disappearance of the racing public. Midseason figures show 9,200 customers on an average day. Last year, average daily attendance was 9,358, and that was down from 10,281 in 2001.

What more can track officials do? They've staged race-day concerts by Three Dog Night and Grand Funk Railroad, turned part of the track's infield over to picnicking families, promoted high-profile stakes races, and helped to edge now-defunct Hialeah Park out of the market. And still the gate has continued to drop.

The latest gimmick is an attack on the nettlesome regulations that prohibit the track from operating like a Las Vegas casino. Now, they need a legislative fix, track officials say.

State Sen. Skip Campbell (D-Tamarac) and Rep. Joe Pickens (R-Palatka) last week introduced legislation that, among other things, would allow Gulfstream to stage nighttime racing and to offer simulcasts from other tracks during the eight months a year its track is shut down. State parimutuel regulations, designed decades ago to nurture the struggling greyhound tracks and jai-alai frontons, have served only to tether Gulfstream, the sleeping giant, while it's down, Savin contends.

The Campbell-Pickens bill could give Gulfstream another infusion of gamblers. The track would have a better shot at the 9-to-5 crowd, which can't make it on weekday afternoons but which might show up Friday evenings. And the simulcasts might bring in others. "During the off-season, there are people who won't travel to Calder Race Course [about five miles west of Gulfstream]," Savin says, "but they might come here because of the proximity to where they live."

Seeing an opportunity in the state's huge budget problems, other tracks are lobbying for a constitutional amendment to allow video lottery slot machines in their clubhouses. Gulfstream, which donated $177,000 in political contributions to both state political parties last year, supports the measure, Savin says. "But we don't see that as the silver bullet," he adds.

Savin, a ruddy-faced, cheerless 42-year-old who's partial to the Miami Vice sports-jacket-and-T-shirt look, keeps digging for signs that the decline has bottomed out. The track's program of weekend concerts continues to draw new crowds, he says, some of them actually betting. Two years ago, track patrons who attended just because of the musical entertainment wagered an average of $7 on the horses. Today, concert patrons are gambling $25 to $30 on each visit -- still far short of the gray-haired crowd but a significant improvement.

And overall, the handle is up -- betting is increasing at Gulfstream and places that simulcast its races.

Will deregulation save Gulfstream? Probably not. That's going to require a long-range shift in the entertainment habits of people who are below retirement age, Savin says.

When Savin tells you his marketing role models, you get an idea of where Gulfstream may be headed. "The three best marketing people I know of were P.T. Barnum, Bill Veeck, and Vince McMahon," Savin says.

Veeck was the major-league baseball entrepreneur who introduced ballpark giveaways, exploding scoreboards, and, when he was owner of the St. Louis Browns in the early 1950s, a midget batter with a microscopic strike zone. Floridians may best remember him for bringing legendary pitcher Satchel Paige to Miami Stadium to pitch for his minor-league team, the Miami Marlins. Veeck had a helicopter deliver Paige to the pitching mound on opening night in 1956.

McMahon is president of the wildly successful World Wrestling Entertainment. Notes Savin: "Look at how McMahon turned something that nobody cared about into a $1 billion industry. It's all in the hype surrounding it."

But Barnum, Veeck, and McMahon were all freewheeling entrepreneurs with an instinct for the outrageous. Savin works for an unwieldy, gray corporation with sagging profits and a client base of contentious old farts. Gulfstream is owned by Magna Entertainment Corp. (MEC), a spinoff of the giant Canadian auto-parts maker, Magna International. MEC owns a dozen racetracks, including Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, site of the Preakness Stakes, and Santa Anita Park in Southern California. According to the company's most recent earnings statement, revenues were up last year, but income was down -- by 46 percent.

In fact, Savin sounds more like hotel mogul Steve Wynn, who turned the Las Vegas casinos into family entertainment, than McMahon or Veeck. He wants to turn Gulfstream into "an entertainment center," he says, not just a racetrack.

"We'll always feature horseracing, just as the bread and butter of the Las Vegas hotels is casino gambling," he says. "But it's not the Venetian casino that you go to now, it's" -- uttering this as if it's preceded by the blare of trumpets -- "the Venetian."

The boldest Gulfstream event so far, the closest to the Barnum model, was "Sunshine Millions" on January 25. Dixieland bands greeted customers at all the entrances, contestants in a Hawaiian bikini beauty contest were on display, a Brazilian samba band snaked through the crowd, the band America gave a 90-minute concert and, oh yes, there was horseracing. The bettors in the crowd had eight high-stakes races to handicap -- four at the track and four on a simulcast from Santa Anita -- with a total of $3.6 million in purses.

Almost 19,000 people turned out for the event. Not bad, but still way behind recent race-day appearances at the track by Bryan Adams and Styx, each of whom drew sell-out crowds of about 30,000, and Cyndi Lauper, who brought in about 24,000. It's the eighth year of the concerts.

Savin has taken some lumps from racing purists for his hustling style. "I've been vilified, hanged in effigy," he says dolorously. There's no way around it. All of the squawky electric guitars and the thumping back beats are turning off some of the old guys.

Down near the clubhouse on a recent Wednesday, Pete Russo, a track regular, looked out at the panorama of royal palms and impatiens, with beach condo towers poking up on the horizon, and he was unmoved. Russo was there for one thing.

"Gamblers aren't lookin' to hear music and eat hot dogs," Russo says. "When you gamble, you've got to see how the horses look when they come out. A horse might be sweated up; he might not look right. You've got to be aware of everything. The music just destroys your concentration."

Savin, who comes from a prominent family of horse breeders, understands what Russo's talking about. "I'm a racing purist," he insists, "but you have to evolve; you have to change. You have to offer more than one live horserace every 25 minutes. That kind of show can't go on."

Savin's greatest hope for long-term viability rests not with tinkering with the laws or with flashier entertainment or with keeping the codgers happy. It rests with those families spreading out picnics on the grass on the track's infield.

Families, ergo kids, ergo future gamblers. So goes the thinking. "When a kid gets up next to the rail and sees those thoroughbred horses galloping past, kicking up dirt, we're planting some seeds," Savin says. The little boy with the dreamy eyes, sitting on the track's infield -- maybe, if the stars line up correctly -- may someday nurture a $200-a-day gambling habit. And that, at least from the perspective of track officials, is a good thing.

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